WeirdSpace Digital Library - Culture without borders
Wanderer of the Wasteland
Zane Grey (1923) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
That night in the dead late hours Adam suddenly awoke. The night seemed the same as all the desert nights--dark and cool under the mesquites--the same dead, unbroken silence. Adam's keen intentness could not detect a slightest sound of wind or brush or beast. Something had pierced his slumbers, and as he pondered deeply there seemed to come out of the vagueness beyond that impenetrable wall of sleep a voice, a cry, a whisper. Had Margarita, sleeping or waking, called to him? Such queer visitations of mind, often repeated, had convinced Adam that he possessed a mystic power or sense.
When Adam awoke late, in the light of the sunny morning, unrealities of the night dispersed like the grey shadows and vanished. He arose eager, vigorous, breathing hard, instinctively seeking for action. The day was Sunday. Another idle wait, fruitful of brooding moods! But he vowed he would not go to the willow brakes, there to hide from Guerd and Collishaw. Let them have their say--do their worst! He would go up to Picacho and gamble and drink with the rest of the drifters. Merryvale's words of desert-learned wisdom rang through Adam's head. As for Margarita, all Adam wanted was one more look at her face, into her dusky eyes, and that would for ever end his relation to her.
At breakfast Arallanes presented a thoughtful and forbidding appearance, although this demeanour was somewhat softened by the few times he broke silence. The senora's impassive serenity lacked its usual kindliness, and her lowered eyes kept their secrets. Margarita had not yet arisen. Adam could not be sure there was really a shadow hovering over the home, or in his own mind, colouring, darkening his every prospect.
After breakfast he went out to stroll along the river bank and then around the village. He ascertained from Merryvale that Collishaw, Guerd, and their associates had found lodgings at different houses for the night, and after breakfast had left for the mining camp. As usual, Merryvale spoke pointedly: "You're brother said they were goin' to clear out the camp. An' I reckon he didn't mean greasers, but whiskey an' gold. Son, you stay away from Picacho to-day." For once, however, the kind old man's advice fell upon deaf ears. Adam had to fight his impatience to be off up the canyon; and only a driving need to see Margarita held him there. He walked to and fro, from village to river and back again. By and by he espied Arallanes and his wife, with their friends, dressed in their best, parading toward the little adobe church. Margarita was not with them.
Adam waited a little while, hoping to see her appear. He did not analyse his strong hope that she would go to church this Sunday as usual. But as no sign of her was forthcoming he strode down to the little brown house and entered at the open door.
"Margarita!" he called. No answer broke the quiet. His second call, however, brought her from her room, a dragging figure with a pale face that Adam had never before seen pale.
"Senor Ad--dam," she faltered.
The look of her, and that voice, stung Adam out of the gentleness habitual with him. Leaping at her, he dragged her into the light of the door. She cried out in a fear that shocked him. When he let go of her, abrupt and sharp in his emotions, she threw up her arms as if to ward off attack.
"Do you think I would hurt you?" he cried, harshly. "No Margarita! I only wanted to see you--just once more."
She dropped her arms and raised her face. Then Adam, keen in that poignant moment, saw in her the passing of an actual fear of death. It struck him mute. It betrayed her. What had been the dalliance of yesterday, playful and passionate in its wild youth, through the night had become dishonour. Yesterday she had been a cat that loved to be stroked; to-day she was a maimed creature, a broken woman.
"Lift your face--higher," said Adam, hoarsely, as he put out a shaking hand to touch her. But he could not touch her. She did lift it and looked at him, denying nothing, still unashamed. But now there was soul in that face. Adam felt it limned on his memory for ever--the stark truth of her frailty, the courage of a primitive nature fearing only death, yearning for brutal blows as proof of the survival of jealous love, a dawning consciousness of his honesty and truth. Terrible was it for Adam to realise that if she had been given that choice again she would have decided differently. But it was too late.
"Adios, senorita," he said, bowing, and backed out of the door. He stopped, and the small pale face with its tragic eyes, straining, unutterably eloquent of wrong to him and to herself, passed slowly out of his sight.
Swiftly Adam strode up the canyon, his fierce energy in keeping with his thoughts. He overtook the Irishman, Regan, who accosted him.
"Hullo, Wansfell, ould fri'nd!" he called. "Don't yez walk so dom' fast."
"Wansfell! Why do you call me that?" asked Adam. How curiously the name struck his ear!
"Ain't thot your noime?"
"No, it's not."
"Wal, all right. Will yez hey a dhrink?" Regan produced a brown bottle and handed it to Adam.
They walked on up the canyon. Regan with his short, stunted legs being hard put to it to keep up with Adam's long strides. The Irishman would attach himself to Adam, that was evident; and he was a most talkative and friendly fellow. Whenever he got out of breath he halted to draw out the bottle. The liquor in an ordinary hour would have befuddled Adam's wits, but now it only heated his blood.
"Wansfell, if yez ain't the dorndest foinest young feller in these diggin's!" ejaculated Regan.
"Thank you, friend. But don't call me that queer name. Mine's Adam."
"A-dom?" echoed Regan. "Phwat a hell of a noime! Adom an' Eve, huh? I seen yez with that black-eyed wench. She's purty."
They finished the contents of the bottle and proceeded on their way. Regan waxed warmer in his regard for Adam and launched forth a strong argument in favour of their going on a prospecting trip.
"Yez would make a foine prospector an' pard," he said. "Out on the desert yez are free an' happy, b'gorra! No place loike the desert, pard, whin yez come to know it! Thar's air to breathe an' long days wid the sun on yer back an' noights whin a mon knows shlape. Mebbe we'll hey the luck to foind Pegleg Smith's lost gold mine."
"Who was Pegleg Smith and what gold mine did he lose?" queried Adam.
Then as they plodded on up the canyon, trying to keep to the shady strips and out of the hot sun, Adam heard for a second time the story of the famous lost gold mine. Regan told it differently, perhaps exaggerating after the manner of prospectors. But the story was impelling to any man with a drop of adventurous blood in his veins. The lure of gold had not yet obsessed Adam, but he had begun to feel the lure of the desert.
Adam concluded that under happier circumstances this Regan would be a man well worth cultivating in spite of his love for the bottle. They reached the camp about noon, had a lunch at the stand of a Chinaman, and then, entering the saloon, they mingled with the crowd, where Adam soon became. separated from Regan. Liquor flowed like water, and gold thudded in sacks and clinked musically in coins upon the tables. Adam had one drink, and that incited him to take another. Again the throb and burn of his blood warmed out the coldness and bitterness of his mood. Deliberately he drank and deliberately he stifled the voice of conscience until he was in a reckless and dangerous frame of mind. There seemed to be a fire consuming him now, to which liquor was only fuel.
He swaggered through the crowded hall, and for once the drunken miners, the painted hags, the cold-faced gamblers, did not disgust him. The smell of rum and smoke, the feel of the thick sand under his feet, the sight of the motley crowd of shirt-sleeved and booted men, the discordant din of music, glasses, gold, and voices--all these sensations struck him full and intimately with their proof that he was a part of this wild assembly of free adventurers. He remembered again Merryvale's idea of a man equipped to cope with this lawless gang and hold his own. Suddenly when he espied his brother Guerd he shook with the driving passion that had led him there.
Guerd sat at table, gambling with Collishaw and MacKay and other men of Picacho well known to Adam. Guerd looked the worse for liquor and bad luck. When he glanced up to see Adam, a light gleamed across his hot face. He dropped his cards, and as Adam stepped near he rose from the table and in two strides confronted him, arrogant, menacing, with the manner of a man dangerous to cross.
"I want money," demanded Guerd.
Adam laughed in his face.
"Go to work. You're not slick enough with the cards to hide your tricks," replied Adam, in deliberate scorn. Temper, and not forethought, actuated Guerd then. He slapped Adam, with the moderate force of an older brother punishing an impertinence. Swift and hard, Adam returned that blow, staggering Guerd, who fell against the table, but was upheld by Collishaw. He uttered a loud and piercing cry.
Sharply the din ceased. The crowd slid back over the sand, leaving Adam in the centre of a wide space, confronting Guerd, who still leaned against Collishaw. Guerd panted for breath. His hot face turned white except for the red place where Adam's fist had struck. MacKay righted the table, then hurriedly drew back. Guerd's fury of astonishment passed to stronger controlled passion. He rose from Collishaw's hold and seemed to tower magnificently. He had the terrible look of a man who had waited years for a moment of revenge, at last to recognise it.
"You hit me! I'll beat you for that--I'll smash your face," he said, stridently.
"Come on," cried Adam.
At this instant the Irishman, Regan, staggered out of the crowd into the open circle. He was drunk.
"Sic 'em, Wansfell, sic 'em," he bawled. "I'm wid yez. We'll lick thot--loidy face--an' ivery dom'----"
Some miner reached out a long arm and dragged Regan back.
Guerd Larey leaned over to pound with his fist on the table. A leaping glow radiated from his face, as if a mask of hate had inspired some word or speech that Adam must find insupportable. His look let loose a bursting gush of blood through Adam's throbbing veins. This was no situation built on a quarrel or a jealous rivalry. It was backed by years, and by some secret not easily to be divined, though its source was the very soul of Cain.
"So that's your game," declared Guerd, with ringing passion. "You want to fight and you make this debt of yours a pretence. But I'm on to you. It's because of the girl I took from you."
"Shut up! Have you no sense of decency? Can't you be half a man?" burst out Adam, beginning to shake.
"Ha! Ha! Ha! Listen to Goody-Goody!...Mother's nice boy--"
"By Heaven, Guerd Larey, if you speak of my--my mother--here--I'll tear out your tongue!"
They were close together now, with only the table between them--Cain and Abel--the old bitter story plain in the hate of one flashing face and the agony of the other. Guerd Larey had divined the means to torture and to crucify this brother whose heart and soul were raw.
"Talk about the fall of Saint Anthony!" cried Guerd, with a voice magical in its steely joy. "Never was there a fall like Adam Larey's--the Sunday-school boy--too sweet--too innocent--too pure to touch the hand of a girl!...Ha-ha! Oh, we can fight, Adam. I'll fight you. But let me talk--let me tell my friends what a damned hypocrite you are...Gentlemen, behold the immaculate Saint Adam whose Eve was a little greaser girl!"
There was no shout of mirth. The hall held a low-breathing silence. It was a new scene, a diversion for the gamblers and miners and their painted consorts, a clash of a different kind and spirit. Guerd paused to catch his breath and evidently to gather supreme passion for the delivery of what seemed more to him than life itself. His face was marble white, quivering and straining, and his eyes blazed with a piercing flame.
Adam saw the living, visible proof of a hate he had long divined. The magnificence of Guerd's passion, the terrible reality of his hate, the imminence of a mortal blow, locked Adam's lips and jaws as in a vice, while a gathering fury, as terrible as Guerd's hate, flooded and damned at the gates of his energy, ready to break out in destroying violence.
"She told me!" Guerd flung the words like bullets. "You needn't bluff it out with your damned lying white face. She told me...You--you Adam Larey, with your pure thoughts and lofty ideals...the rot of them! You--damn your milksop soul!--you were the slave of a dirty little greaser girl who fooled you, laughed in your face, left you for me--for me at the snap of my fingers...And, by God! my cup would be full--if your mother could only know----"
It was Collishaw's swift hand that knocked up Adam's flinging arm and the gun which spouted red and boomed heavily. Collishaw grappled with him--was flung off--and then Guerd lunged in close to save himself. A writhing, wrestling struggle--quick, terrible; then the gun boomed with muffled report--and Guerd Larey uttering a cry of agony, fell away from Adam, backward over the table. His gaze, conscious, appalling, was fixed on Adam. A dark crimson spot stained his white shirt. Then he lay there with fading eyes--the beauty and radiance and hate of his face slowly shading.
Collishaw leaned over him. Then with hard, grim gesture he shouted, hoarsely: "Dead, by God!...You'll hang for this!"
A creeping horror was slowly paralysing Adam. But at that harsh speech he leaped wildly, flinging his gun with terrific force into the sheriff's face. Like an upright stone dislodged Collishaw fell. Then Adam, bounding forward, flung aside the men obstructing his passage and fled out of the door.
Terror lent wings to his feet. In a few moments he was beyond the outskirts of the camp. Even here, fierce in his energy, he bounded upward, from rock to rock, until he reached the steep jumble of talus where swift progress was impossible. Then with hands and feet working in unison, as if he had been an ape, he climbed steadily.
From the top of the first rocky slope he gazed back fearfully. Yes, men were pursuing him, strung out along the road of the mining camp; and among the last was a tall, black-coated, bareheaded man that Adam took to be Collishaw. This pursuer was staggering along, flinging his arms.
Adam headed straight up the ascent. Picacho loomed to the right, a colossal buttress of red rock, wild and ragged and rugged. But the ascent that had looked so short and easy--how long and steep! Every shadow was a lie, every space of slope in the sunlight hid the truth of its width. Sweat poured from his hot body. He burned. His breath came in laboured bursts. A painful stab in his side spread and swelled to the whole region of his breast. He could hear the mighty throb of his heart, and he could hear it in another way--a deep muffled throb through his ears.
At last he reached the height of the slope where it ended under a wall of rock, the backbone of that ridge, bare and jagged, with no loose shale on its almost perpendicular side. Here it took hard labour of hand and foot to climb and zigzag and pull himself up. Here he fell exhausted.
But the convulsion was short lived. His will power was supreme and his endurance had not been permanently disabled. He crawled before he could walk, and when he recovered enough to stagger erect he plodded on, invincible in his spirit to escape.
From this height, which was a foothill to the great peak, he got his bearings and started down.
"They can't--trail me--here," he whispered, hoarsely, as he looked back with the eyes of a fugitive. "And--down there--I'll keep off the road."
After that brief moment of reasoning he became once more victim to fear and desperate passion to hurry. He had escaped, his pursuers could not see him now, he could hide, the descent was tortuous; yet these apparent facts, favourable as they were, could not save him. Adam pushed on, gaining strength as he recovered breath. As his direction led him downhill, he went swiftly, sometimes at a rapid walk, again sliding down here and rushing there, and at other places he stepped from rock to rock, like a balancing rope walker.
The descent here appeared to be a long, even slant of broken rocks, close together like cobblestones in a street, and of a dark-bronze hue. They shone as if they had been varnished. And a closer glance showed Adam the many reddish tints of bisnagi cactus growing in the cracks between the stones.
His misgivings were soon verified. He had to descend here, for the afternoon was far gone, and whatever the labour and pain, he must reach the road before dark. The rocks were sharp, uneven, and as slippery as if they had been wet. At the very outset Adam slipped, and, falling with both hands forward, he thrust them into a cactus. The pain stung, and when he had to pull hard to free himself from the thorns, it was as if his hands had been nailed. He could not repress moans as he tried to pull out the thorns with his teeth. They stuck tight. The blood ran in little streams. But he limped on, down the black slope.
The white road below grew closer and closer. It was a goal. This slope of treacherous rocks and torturing cacti was a physical ordeal that precluded memory, of the past or consideration of the present. When Adam at last reached the road, there to fall exhausted and wet and burning upon a flat rock, it seemed that he had been delivered from an inferno.
Presently he sat up to look around him. A wonderful light showed upon the world--the afterglow of sunset. Picacho bore a crown of gold. All the lower tips of ranges were purpling in shadow. To the southward a wide grey barren road led to an endless bleak plateau, flat and dark, with dim spurs of mountains in the distance. Desolate, lifeless, silent--the gateway to the desert! Adam felt steal over him a sense of awe. The vastness of seen and suggested desert seemed flung at him, as if nature meant to reveal to him the mystery and might of space. The marvellous light magnified the cacti and the rocks and the winding ranges and the bold peaks, and the distances, until all were unreal. Adam felt that he had overcome a great hardship, accomplished a remarkable feat, had climbed and descended a range as sharp toothed as jagged lava. But to what end! Something in the bewildering light of the west, in the purple shadows growing cold in the east, in the tremendous oppression of illimitable space and silence and solitude and desolation--something inexplicable repudiated and mocked his physical sense of great achievement.
All at once, in a flash, he remembered his passion, his crime, his terror, his flight. Not until that instant had intelligence operated in harmony with his feelings. He lifted his face in the cool, darkening twilight. The frowning mountains held aloof, and all about him seemed detached, rendering his loneliness absolute and immutable.
"Oh! Oh!" he moaned. "What will become of me?...No family--no friends--no hope!...Oh, Guerd, my brother! His blood on my hands!...He ruined my life! He's killed my soul!...Oh, damn him, damn him! he's made me a murderer!"
Adam fell face down on the rock with breaking heart. His exceeding bitter cries seemed faint and lost in the midst of the vastness of desert and sky. The deepening of twilight to darkness, the cold black grandeur of the great peak, the mournful wail of a desert wolf, the pure pale evening star that pierced the purple sky, the stupendous loneliness and silence of that solitude--all these facts seemed Nature's pitiless proof of her indifference to man and his despair. His hope, his prayer, his frailty, his fall, his burden and agony and life--these were nothing to the desert that worked inscrutably through its millions of years, nor to the illimitable expanse of heaven, deepening its blue and opening its cold, starry eyes. But a spirit as illimitable and as inscrutable breathed out of the universe and over the immensity of desert space--a spirit that breathed to the soul of the ruined man and bade him rise and take up his burden and go on down the naked shingles of the world.
Despair and pride and fear of death, and this strange breath of life, dragged Adam up and drove him down the desert road. For a mile he staggered and plodded along, bent and bowed like an old man, half blinded by tears and choked by sobs, abject in his misery; yet even so, the something in him that was strongest of all--the instinct to survive--made him keep to the hard, gravelly side of the road, that his tracks might not show in the dust.
And that action of blood and muscle, because it came first in the order of energy, gradually assumed dominance of him, until again he was an escaping fugitive, mostly concerned with direction and objective things. The direction took care of itself, being merely a matter of keeping along the edge of the road that gleamed pale in front of him. Objects near at hand, however, had to be carefully avoided. Rocks were indistinct in the gloom; ocatilla cacti thrust out long spectral arms, like the tentacles of an octopus; and shadows along the road took the alarming shape of men and horses and wagons. All around him, except to the west, was profound obscurity, and in that direction an endless horizon, wild and black and sharp, with sweeping bold lines between the spurs, stood silhouetted against a pale-blue, star-fired sky. Miles and miles he walked, and with a strength that had renewed. He never looked up at the heavens above. Often he halted to turn and listen. These moments were dreaded ones. But he heard only a faint breeze.
Morning broke swiftly and relentlessly, a grey, desert dawning. Dim columns of smoke scarce a mile away showed him that Yuma was close. Fields and cattle along the road, and then an Indian hut, warned him that he was approaching the habitations of men and sooner or later he would be seen. He must hide by day and travel by night. Bordering the road to his left was a dense thicket of arrow-weed, indicating that he had reached the bottom lands of the river. Into this Adam crawled like a wounded and stealthy deer. Hunger and thirst were slight, but his whole body seemed a throbbing ache. Both mind and body longed for the oblivion that came at once in sleep.